I had lunch with Harper Lee fifteen years ago. A student of mine had won a Mockingbird essay contest, so he and I were invited to the University of Alabama for the luncheon. She was a very kind lady, signing our books and having a polite conversation. I hardly slept the night before, thinking of what I should and should not ask the legend of American literature. On the day in question, I froze. I could only make series of platitudes, and then my AP honors English writer told her that she was cool. Later, on the ride home, I asked my student if he realized how incredible and rare it was to meet the author. He just nodded. I floated on a cloud for the entire next week.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is a good book. Many times as I read through it, I asked myself how incredible it would have been to know the information in the book when I talked with Harper Lee. The one book. It was one of the things I was told by her people not to ask about when we met. Reading Furious Hours clears up much of the enigma that surrounds Harper Lee. There WERE many more books. One of the books that Harper Lee was working on in the prime of her adult years was one called The Reverend, the subject of Furious Hours which includes the life of Harper Lee. She was adamantly opposed to anyone writing a biography about her before her death. That being said, I will not get into the weeds of the book and give too much away, but I will focus on my aggravation.
Willie Maxwell killed people. He was a serial killer in the 1970’s. He had a lawyer, Tom Radney. An attorney in Alexander City, Alabama, Radney focused on defense law. He was very good at what he did, then again so was Joseph Goebbels. In a nutshell, Tom Radney defended Willie Maxell time and time again, allowing the killer to continue his killing spree. What did Radney gain from this besides some notoriety in Alabama newspapers? Money. But how? After all, Maxwell was badly in debt and working random jobs. The answer is weaved into the killer’s motives for killing. Willie Maxwell took out multiple life insurance policies on the people he murdered; then after his lawyer helped him walk out of the courtroom on various technicalities, Mr. Radney and Mr. Maxwell went to work filing and collecting life insurance money with the agreement Radney would receive a good portion of the payouts.
Oh, it gets better. When Willie Maxwell attended the funeral of his stepdaughter, a family member of the deceased blew Willie Maxwell’s brains out during the service. He immediately surrendered to police; might as well, there were dozens and dozens of witnesses who saw the whole thing go down. How could this guy get away with something so cut and dry? Tom Radney, of course. Yes, the same guy who defended Willie Maxwell all of those years represented the killer who killed the killer. Now, you are in the heart of Furious Hours, and why an icon of American literature began investigating and writing her next book: The Reverend and why it never happened.
I finished the book and could not stop thinking about what I believe is the weakest link in our Republic: the judicial branch. Let me be straight from the start. I do believe that everyone deserves a fair trial and should have representation and is innocent until proven guilty, but then there are the loopholes, appeals, technicalities, slip-and-fall lawsuits, and the rights of the victim. Many would argue that I would be grateful for those things if I were in a criminal or civil situation. I can honestly say that I would not. Why? Because I cannot rationalize how a person like Willie Maxwell or O.J. Simpson can slaughter people and just go on enjoying life. Not only that, but HOW an attorney can defend someone and do everything in his power and knowledge of the law to help a person like Willie Maxwell or O.J. Simpson walk out of a courtroom with the possibility of killing again. And in the case of Willie Maxwell, not only was Tom Radney defending and excusing his client’s actions; but again, he was helping him reap the rewards of the multiple life insurance policies that his client took out on his victims, being paid with the LIFE insurance money of the victims. It is sickening.
What is the sad part about all of this is? The gray area only gets wider. Slip-and-fall attorneys pour out of online colleges. Judges and attorneys choose political sides and makes decisions based on feelings instead of the Constitution. The defendant gets more respect and attention than the victim. At the end of the day, for every case that is tried, a decision is made that gives precedence in another case where a decision is made . . . and the gray area gets wider.